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Senate Republicans investigating WHO and China's coronavirus response

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will conduct a "wide-ranging" oversight investigation into the World Health Organization's dealings with China.
Image: Ron Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks during a Budget Committee oversight hearing on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24, 2018.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Congressional Republicans are planning their own investigation into the coronavirus outbreak — examining how the World Health Organization and the Chinese government responded to the pandemic from the onset.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee, led by Chairman Ron Johnson R-Wis., will conduct a "wide-ranging" oversight investigation into the origins of the virus and the WHO's response, according to a committee source familiar with the matter.

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he was halting funding for the organization for having fumbled the response to the pandemic by failing to challenge the Chinese government's early accounts of how the virus was spreading. "The outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death," Trump said.

Johnson tasked Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who called for an investigation into the WHO two weeks ago, with taking the lead on that aspect of the probe, a source close to Scott told NBC News.

Scott, Johnson and other senators sent a letter Tuesday to the WHO's director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as "the first step in that process," according to a spokesperson for Scott. The senators asked for information "regarding the WHO's failed and delayed response to the coronavirus ahead of an anticipated Congressional hearing."

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The inquiry comes as the economy is in free fall and Republicans are looking to remain in control of the White House and the Senate in the November election. Trump's campaign is already calling former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, "weak on China" in fundraising emails.

The investigation will also look at other elements, such as why the Strategic National Stockpile wasn't "better prepared" and why pharmaceutical ingredients and medical devices are made overseas, as first reported by Politico and confirmed to NBC News by an aide to Johnson. Trump has blamed his predecessors for not having maintained the stockpile adequately.

Other demands for accountability are also emerging. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, last week called for an "independent investigation into the WHO's handling of the COVID-19 response."

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the WHO, wrote to Ghebreyesus days ago asking that he appear at a hearing once it was safe to do so. Young also signed on to the letter that was sent Tuesday.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who called for an investigation into the Chinese Communist Party two weeks ago, announced a bill Tuesday seeking to hold the party "responsible for causing the COVID-19 global pandemic."

He also joined Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., days ago in introducing a bicameral act that would "authorize the president to sanction foreign officials who suppress or distort information about international public health crises."

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In the House, Republicans on the Oversight Committee also wrote to Ghebreyesus, requesting information on the WHO's relationship with China and accusing the organization of helping it "spread dangerous propaganda during the course of the coronavirus pandemic."

The Democratic-controlled House, meanwhile, announced a select committee to investigate the federal response to the pandemic earlier this month. "The committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus, and to assure that the taxpayer dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said when it was announced.